Aging and dementia: Looking at Amherst through a different lens

By Sarah Marshall

I bet you know someone with dementia. I know several people with dementia, Alzheimer’s in many cases, and it is painful to see these wonderful people fade, cognitively. And I have a sense of the emotional, physical, and financial tolls these diseases inflict on family members.

If you don’t know someone with dementia, I bet you know someone who, due to advancing age, is having more difficulty with mobility, vision, or hearing. That person might even be you! Few of us will be fortunate enough to age without experiencing these limitations directly.

Photo by Eduardo Barrios on Unsplash

How well do you think Amherst’s infrastructure and programs serve residents with impairments due to aging or dementia? Is Amherst “friendly” to these sectors of our community? Will you be able to continue your daily activities if you join these fellow residents in disability? Is your current home a good option for “aging in place?” Can you continue to live independently? Will you want different services from the Town?

These are some of the issues being explored by the Age and Dementia Friendly Community Project. A working group, led by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), has been meeting monthly since January. The three main phases of work are to gather information about how friendly Amherst is to people with disabilities of aging or dementia, to devise an action plan for making us friendlier, and to make and monitor our progress. The goal is to produce an Action Plan for the town by the end of December.

During the first phase, the working group is conducting numerous outreach efforts to residents of any age, but particularly those at least 55 years old, via an on-line survey, paper questionnaire, and in-person assistance with the survey. The goal is to hear from a diverse set of residents. Thus, the group will reach out to people at apartment complexes, the Senior Center, the Survival Center, the libraries, congregate meal sites, churches, the farmers’ market, community events, and other locations. Questionnaires have been printed in Spanish and Portuguese, and volunteer translators for other languages are sought.

If you haven’t yet taken the survey (it took me eight minutes to complete), you can do so here, before the end of April. Links to the survey in languages other than English are here. Hard copies are available at the Bangs Center and the Jones Library.

Why become an Age and Dementia Friendly Community now, you may wonder, Is there some urgency? Approximately 10% of Amherst residents are at least 60 years old. About 30% of Amherst residents over 65 live alone, and about 12% of residents over 65 suffer from dementia of some kind. Nationally, the population of people who are at least 65 years old is expected to exceed the 18-or-under population by 2035. The presence of the university and colleges, and related factors, may accelerate this trend in Amherst. Many older residents would like to continue to live in Amherst, if that is feasible.

What makes a town friendly (or not) to people with dementia or disabilities of advancing age? This slide, from a presentation by Becky Basch of the PVPC, gives a broad answer:

But, to be more specific, an age-friendly community must address inclusivity and accessibility in many aspects of public and private life, such as:

  • Housing – e.g., availability of smaller, one-level units, local long-term-care options, safe neighborhoods;
  • Transportation – e.g., public and private, by several modes including walking, signals that give adequate time to slower walkers to cross streets, and loud signals for the hard of hearing;
  • Outdoor spaces and buildings – e.g., accessible, signage visible to the vision impaired;
  • Communication, information and technology – e.g., are appropriate means used and available to people with a range of skills;
  • Access, equity, and inclusion – e.g., local workers trained to work with impaired customers, support groups;
  • Civic participation and employment;
  • Public safety – e.g., personnel who know where residents with dementia live and how to respond to them; and
  • Services – e.g., health, community, business.

After the survey concludes, the working group will schedule monthly public meetings to get ideas and feedback on these topics. The first is likely to be held in May; in-person and virtual modes are under consideration.

Other Pioneer Valley communities participating in this Age and Dementia Friendly Community initiative include Belchertown, Hadley, South Hadley and Northampton, all at different stages of the process. You can read Northampton’s draft community assessment and action plan, which identifies assets, challenges and recommendations, here, and South Hadley’s here.

As the dates for public discussions of the topics listed above are announced, we will post them on our “On our radar” page.

3 thoughts on “Aging and dementia: Looking at Amherst through a different lens”

  1. The Amherst Age & Dementia Friendly Community Project is co-led by the Town’s Senior Services and Planning Department staff, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) staff, and the project’s working group members, who are working together on community engagement strategies and development of the project’s Community Assessment and Action Plan. The technical assistance provided by PVPC is grant funded through the Tufts Health Plan Foundation. Additionally, the Amherst Affordable Housing Trust is providing financial assistance for mailing surveys. As of April 7, 2022, 735 completed survey responses have been submitted. Survey responses will be accepted until April 30, 2022.

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